The Day Rick Saved the Stars and Stripes

Photo by Jim Roark Rick Monday grabbing the Am...
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Ah, October. Autumn arrives and with it the final leaves of a 4860 game baseball season begin to fall as the competition is reduced to twelve teams across six divisions and two leagues.

As a young man, our four-boy family ritual of male bonding included trips to Chavez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Elysian Fields neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was the center of the baseball firmament – the sacred home stadium of the Dodgers. Each season, our “boys in blue” would battle the hated San Francisco Giants and the despised Cincinnati Reds for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and the traffic of sporting events as they equated to a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and filthy public urinals. Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was usually located in a very rough neighborhood.

Despite his misgivings, he understood the need to allow his boys to experience the electric atmosphere of a stadium packed with rabid fans and to witness young men who had so honed their athletic talents that they were afforded the chance to play Major League Baseball.

It was 1976 – America’s Bicentennial year – and it seemed everyone was declaring their independence. I was a surly freshman in high school and could not create enough distance between myself and my father. His existence annoyed me. Every syllable he uttered skidded like fingers on a chalk board. I cringed at the way he ate, talked and even breathed.  It seemed that his principle job description was to control my life.

My mother had already crossed this hostile adolescent desert with my two older brothers and suggested to him that we spend some father-son time at a Dodger Game. On this sunny April Sunday, it would be a chance for my Dad to see his beloved Chicago Cubs and for me to reconnect with a more innocent time of Topps baseball cards, the chance to catch a foul ball and if we were lucky, a nostalgic glimpse of a time when my Dad was viewed as mentor instead of tormentor.

We exited the Pasadena freeway on to Academy Road, winding through a densely populated, graffiti-scarred neighborhood of chain linked front yards. Run down homes built in the 1930’s were perched on steep hillsides with laundry on clotheslines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in the spring breeze. Like clockwork, my Dad told me to keep my eyes peeled. I suddenly remembered why I did not like going to sporting events with my father. The toughest person we actually saw on the street was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.

“Careful, Dad, that grandmother might have a gun”, I said sarcastically.

At 16, I had begun to routinely challenge my father’s conservative peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity. Dad had finally come to recognize when I was baiting him and ignored the provocation, writing it off as the price of being together. He was a creature of habit – robotically driving the exact route, to the same parking area, to the same space– a location furthest from the stadium and closest to the exit.

My father’s greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when Los Angeles’ great social insurrection occurred. He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure was always building. One day, urban rebellion would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest. When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of peasant farmers with pitchforks decided it was time to take back California. It was a thankless time for my Dad. I had spent the last year challenging his views on everything. I complained about the distance we had to walk to enter the stadium. He walked slightly ahead – eager for a coke and the cool shade of the concession area.

I was impressed as we were directed by an usher to field level seats off the first base line. The Dodgers were expected to be decent this year and showed some promise with a line-up that featured Billy Buckner, Ted Sizemore, Ron Cey and Steve Garvey. The meat of the Cub lineup was Rick Monday and Bill Madlock.

As we sat down, I suddenly saw a different side of my father that afternoon as he began to rattle off statistics and insights into his favorite Cub players and the pitching match ups.

“The Cubs will probably lose. They have no damn pitching this year and there’s nobody to support Monday and Madlock. Those cheapskates the Wrigleys are too tight to pay for good players. They are no better than that idiot GM Jim Finks for the Bears who won’t get them a decent quarterback to help Butkis and the defense out. Monday hit .267 with 17 homers last year. He is hitting .365 now and is on fire. Steve Stone was 12-8 last year but his ERA was too high at 3.95. But, the numbskull likes to give up the long ball”

My Dad wasn’t even looking at me. He was like a little kid playing with soldiers, chatting away to invisible friends. He spotted Roger Owens, the famous peanut vendor.

“Michael, remember this guy? He once threw you a bag of peanuts between his legs over ten rows.”

“Hey Roger!”

He held up some money. The popular redheaded peanut vendor smiled and pointed at my father. He was four rows over and six rows up. Owens whirled and shot a bag of peanuts behind his back. Dad snapped them up as they flew above his head. There was a smattering of applause as he handed $4 to a daisy chain of fans who passed the money up to Owens.

The actual game was a nail biter that was likely to be decided by one run. However, the game proved to be a mere sideline to the drama that unfolded in front of 25,000 fans.

Heading into the bottom of the fourth inning, a fan and has 11-year old son leaped on to the grass of the outfield. Initially met by raucous applause, our cheers quickly turned to boos when people realized their intentions. My Dad turned to me and said, “Hey, give me those binoculars!” I heard him swear as he hissed, “that son-of-a-bitch Communist is trying to burn an American flag!” As he said “Flag”, I saw Cub outfielder, Rick Monday, rush past the protestors and grab the flag. The stadium went berserk and cheered even louder as security roughly escorted the agitators from the outfield. I looked up to see an entire small town of Americans standing and cheering.

“Dad, can you believe that?”

I looked over and saw that my father was almost crying. He was clapping his hands so hard that they must have hurt. “Atta Boy, Monday!” Dad was one of the last people to sit down as the game resumed. In his next at bat, Monday received another standing ovation from the grateful crowd.

The scoreboard flashed, “Rick Monday, you made a great play!” Dad stood again applauding the young Cub player who as it turned out, was also an ex-marine. I was about to tell him to calm down and sit but somewhere in the back of my adolescent brain, I knew this was the right thing to do. I stood up beside him and started clapping again. He turned to me and shouted over the din, “That’s what makes this country great. It’s patriotism. It’s goddamn patriotism. Don’t ever forget that!”

I suddenly felt a surge of pride.  It was an awkward feeling to feel pride for being part of something bigger than you when you seemingly had made no contribution.  But, I had witnessed something special. I was proud of Rick Monday, proud of my Dad and proud to be an American.  In the thirty-five years that would follow, I cannot not recall a time when I saw my father so spontaneously happy.  It happened as fast a lit match – – a hero deciding to take action.  I realized action is what heros were all about – normal people, that in an instance, stopped watching and started moving.

The following year, Rick Monday was traded to the Dodgers and helped lead them to two division pennants. He became a permanent family favorite and a role model for a new generation looking for reliable points of reference in a rapidly changing society.

Film Noir Night At The BowTie Cinema

Film Noir Night at The Bowtie Cinema

 

It was a perfect night for foul play. A cold front hidden by a black slate cloak of persistent rain was moving stealthily up the Sound to settle over the New England countryside.  Fog and mist swirled, playing tricks on drivers as their dimly lit lights slowly cut narrow ridges through the pea soup of an inclement April night.

Outside the great bay window, the driveway street lamp glass shook, scattering broken light from a slap of 20-knot wind that swooped and rose across the tops of the hemlocks and hickories. It was a night of dark intent. 

I moved to the video library and selected the only logical entertainment for a spring evening that had lost its promise and descended into madness and mayhem.  Like a cordon bleu chef’s menu, this visual meal must be a Hitchcock and not just any thriller but Olivier and Fontaine in the 1939 classic “Rebecca”.  Supported by George Sanders, Nigel Bruce, Joan Fontaine and sinister Judith Anderson, this classic motion picture transformed my den into a spiral staircase of deceit, broken promises and murder. 

I dimmed the lights, cocooning myself in a shaneel blanket as Leo, MGM’s ubiquitous lion, roared into motion the 60-year-old classic.  My daughter opened the den door, peering into the darkness.

” Whatcha watchin’, Dad?” 

I quickly perked up and enthusiastically described the film – which was my first mistake.  ” Does anyone die?” She asked with sociopathic indifference.  ” Well, yes, but that’s all part of the mystery.” “Sounds boring,” she said as she turned into the lit foyer moving off to find her Mac.

The boys were next to poke their heads into my cave upon hearing Joan Fontaine’s dramatic cry, “ don’t jump!” 

” Guys, I’m watching a mystery movie where a lady dies and no one knows why. Come in and watch it with me.” They slowly fell into the darkness.  My ten year old froze upon seeing the opening credits.

” Oh, wait. Is this black and white?  Forget it. Those movies are so boring…” They fled the room as if I was suddenly offering free root canals. With my spouse preoccupied, I was alone again – an old soul in a darkened screening room. The door opened again – one final time and hope sprang eternal.  The gentle patter of paws announced my inseparable canine shadow, Brody, who predictably settled at my feet – a musty tri-color blanket of unconditional love.

The film opened to Monaco’s Grand Massif as a solitary figure ponders suicide.

For a moment, we were peering across the sequined waters to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat with Brody looking for French poodles and I looking for a tuxedo shop so I might discretely shadow Olivier on his dark journey.  The film concluded in a conflagration of epic proportions and I emerged from my pod of nostalgia exhausted and longing for the return of movies that used lighting, dialogue, innuendo and a star studded cast of supporting actors and actresses to help you forget about whatever troubles were swirling outside your windows.

Rebecca was filmed in 1939 during the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Europe was embroiled in the first stages of the Phony War and the world was holding its breath.  It was a time of terrible uncertainty in America.  Radio, magazines and film were one’s primary lens to a combustible and foreign world.  To hold a cinema ticket was to purchase a pass to exotic locales where men and women led noble, exciting and desperate lives.

Since that time, the movie theatre has been repeatedly administered last rites as home entertainment, DVDs and the digital age conspired to change the medium of film.  However, the theatre and motion pictures survive and transcend the efforts of those who might condemn them to iPod screens the size of postage stamps. It would be, after all, a form of aesthetic sacrilege to attempt to watch Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia or any other epic by Sir David Lean on an MP3 player.

 

My love of film started early and hit its peak in college, when I banded together with other celluloid loving film majors to drive an hour each weekend into Hollywood’s NuArt theatre to watch foreign films – – the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, Truffaut’s “Blow Up” or De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”.  The silver screen was the best place to appreciate the entire canvas that these ground breaking directors and cinematographers utilized to tell their stories.  Just as Ansel Adams revealed the simple genius of black and white photography in Yosemite and The Range of Light, so the full power of black and white celluloid is only realized when presented in a cinema. 

I am convinced that the best movies lie, gathering dust, abandoned on the Gramophone Video Store shelves, victims of a parochial prejudice against the absence of color and graphic violence.

As I watch the consequences of the recession settle on our small town, I see people creatively trying to reconstruct simpler routines and lives. What if we turned could convince Bowtie Cinema to dedicate one theatre one evening a week to a double bill featuring the great films of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s? Each Thursday, we could transform our town into a gilded family night at the movies.  Perhaps we start with Academy Award candidates from 1939: Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mister Chips and of course, Gone With The Wind.

How about a month featuring the films of Hitchcock – Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, Rebecca and The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

If the kids want adventure, how about the original “The Four Feathers” with Ralph Richardson teamed up with   “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.  February and Valentine’s Day could be Bette Davis month with All About Eve and The Little Foxes followed by musicals like “West Side Story,” “Paint Your Wagon”, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and “Top Hat” with Rogers and Astaire.

Who would not want a little film noir with a good Robert Mitchum or Dick Powell melodrama.  You won’t be the same after watching a pathetic Erich Von Stroheim and bugged eyed, insane Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: ” I am ready for my close up, Mr. Demille.” Give me Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in Houseboat or Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

On All Hallows eve, we could show “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Canterville Ghost” with Charles Laughton.  For Thanksgiving, we feast on some fantasy with “ A Guy Named Joe”, and the little known “ Tales of Manhattan” about a custom made tuxedo with a curse. At Christmas, it’s Loretta Young, David Niven and Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife” along with “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  New Years concludes with William Wyler’s seven Oscar masterpiece of veterans returning home from WWII in  “The Best Years of Our Lives?”

If we build it, they will come. I can see it all now – multiple generations from all over Fairfield County appearing once a week to fill a single theatre to see movies the way the director’s intended – on a big screen, alone yet together, bonded by a twitch of an eyebrow in Witness For The Prosecution, the utter abandonment of a blacklisted writer who writes the screenplay for a western called “High Noon”, or listening to the chaotic strings and the tilted mise en scene of post war Vienna in Orson Welles’ “The Third Man. 

I can’t get my kids to watch these old movies at home.  But just maybe, on a quiet weeknight, I could talk them into the last picture show at the Bowtie. For a single price of admission, I can treat them to a Jimmy Stewart double bill: leading off with “Harvey” and concluding with a civics lesson about a naïve first year Congressman almost destroyed by corruption in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

There is hope.  I came home the other day and found my daughter and a friend watching a black and white movie.  Disguising my utter joy, I casually queried,” so what’s on, guys?”

 “Citizen Kane….”

I smiled as I watched the corrupt, lifeless hand of Charles Foster Kane drop his dime store snow globe and whisper, “Rosebud!” – a relic of lost innocence and like the golden age of cinema, an echo of a simpler and magical time.

Taming The Dancing Bear

0911_Cotillion_352
Image by Dawn Camp via Flickr

Taming The Dancing Bear

“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”– Japanese proverb

It was the uniform of the condemned: the hand me down blue blazer, striped tie knotted with a baseball sized double Windsor, a starched white pin point, and itchy, gray wool slacks with razor edged military creases. It was not even Sunday.  It was Saturday evening and I was going to the first of what promised to be several humiliating classes called “Cotillion”. I did not know what a cotillion was but judging from the wry, sardonic smile on my older brother’s face, I was not going to like it.  Cotillion was supposed to transform us into young gentleman and ladies – gentrified aesthetes whose table manners were only exceeded by their ability to do the cha-cha.  Each parent secretly held hopes that this rigorous social sandpapering would prepare their child to some day become the US cultural attaché to some exotic European country.

The dance macabre was held at the town community center and was hosted by the imperious Commander and Mrs. U. The Commander was a rigid cardboard cut out who feared no man except his spouse and dance partner, a Joan Crawford stunt double replete with hyperthyroid eyes and a fearsome tire skid unibrow. Her toxic perfume could have emptied an entire trench line in WWI. We suspected that life with Mrs. U was the equivalent of going to war – long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror. We hugged the walls, a knot of restless and irritable fifth graders, pushing and shoving one another toward the demilitarized zone of ballroom floor that separated us from the mysterious tangle of Cinderella gowns, bowed hair and polished glass slippers.

“Heel, toe, heel, toe, slide, slide, slide” shrilled with mind numbing repetition through an ancient loudspeaker.  For the young attendees, the experience was reminiscent of a political reeducation camp in Cambodia.  For Mrs. U, each Saturday evening brought the chance to transform into a dreamy Blanche Dubois reliving a time when Tommy Dorsey music was floating on the cool autumn air and young men were lining up to fill her dance card. When the first few notes of Blue Danube fell like a soft silk veil, the U’s roamed the floor in a nostalgic blackout looking for partners.  A silent rosary could be heard from the mouths of every child, ” Please do not pick me, please do not pick me.” An alabaster claw clutched my arm.  “ Come with me, young man.  Let’s show this ballroom how to waltz!”  Nervous snickers and total humiliation swirled around me as Mrs. Unander proceeded to break me like a green colt. After enduring the Box Step with the skeleton lady, the music mercifully stopped. I returned to the fray of cowlicks and tight collars, emasculated and reeking of cheap perfume.

Our liberation from Cotillion and dancing was short lived.  The early trauma was followed by an even greater confusion of middle school and high school dances.  As boys, we understood that girls liked to dance and that asking the opposite sex to trip the light fantastic could lead to “going out” – – one of the many jasmine scented rites of passages compulsory to a young man’s journey. The gymnasium social scene was a tight onion of posturing and hormones.  An outer layer of boys and girls adorned the gym walls and risers watching the vortex of motion with envy and contempt.  The core of this anxious adolescent scallion was an evolving social order of post pubescent royalty – – princes, ladies in waiting, dukes, jesters and the first cut of prom kings and drama queens.  The dancing was free form expression with boys confined to safe, unimaginative jerking from side to side with the occasional overbite and riff of an air guitar.  The girls were infinitely more expressive with arms above their heads swaying like Moroccan belly dancers in a swirling hot wind.  And then there were the mavericks – individualistic kids who dared to dance outside the safety zone – using moves borrowed from American bandstand or Soul Train to distinguish them and perhaps leap frog the established social hierarchy by dancing with the most popular girls.  We would mock and badger these counter cultural souls from the safety of our shadows.  Yet, we were the ones who were not dancing.

I tried to break ranks with my larger, inept brethren practicing moves in front of the mirror days before dances.  There was simply no sequence of steps or motions that did not make me look as if I was on the cusp of an epileptic seizure.  My father was no help.  The man, who had grown up in a time with great dance steps like the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, had one series of moves that my brothers and I simply referred to as “the hydroplane”.  He would sway side to side like a Rodeo Drive palm tree while moving his hands parallel to the ground.  It appeared as though he was a tragic Prometheus forever condemned to administer Pledge wax to an imaginary tabletop.  My brothers were no help as they were equally challenged.  My last hope, my mother, could not stop laughing each time we privately attempted to hustle.  I was the dancing bear in the circus.

I married and was immediately diagnosed by my coordinated partner as suffering from severe rhythmic deficit syndrome (SRDS).  SRDS can effect anyone but I was sadly the poster child for the disorder.  My spouse patiently pushed therapy – – dancing at parties, weddings and informal gatherings.  Each step was painful and I created excuses to avoid the rectangular parquets of humiliation.  She signed us up for a couples dancing class but I flunked out.  I observed other men also challenged with SRDS who loathed parties with bands and DJs.  The music would start and this band of left footed brothers would flee to the toilets, bars and patios as if a fire had been declared, leaving their dates, partners and spouses to dance with one another and that same loathsome maverick that would see this opportunity to once again become the center of the galaxy of dancing queens.

It took twenty years but I finally stopped fleeing the party at the first machine gun burst of music. To my surprise, no one noticed ursus clumsius lumber on to the dance floor, as all were preoccupied with their own self- expression.  They had obviously observed dancing bears before. As the bass thumped and the music pitched, I noticed the ghost of an awkward adolescent hesitating at the party door, looking back at me – a thick, teetering jenga stack of overbites and invisible guitar riffs – smiling and then melting away. I glanced around the floor and watched as other bears entered the fray.  The maverick was still roaming the floor, ever the opportunist, feasting on partnerless women, urging all to join him in some Latin Salsa line step that he had learned while on a recent business trip to Sao Paolo.  I smiled and moved predictably, balancing on my invisible circus ball – arms confined within the proverbial safety zone. Somewhere off in the cosmos, the Unanders would be smiling.

The girls were still beautiful.  The music was still intoxicating.  The best part of all was no one cared.  Not even me.

Back To School

Back to The School

Students at Washington High School at class, t...
Students at Washington High School at class, training for specific contributions to the war effort, Los Angeles, Calif. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

It’s the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45am with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the ” bush ” of high school.  It is a time of great anticipation and angst.  We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school.  I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid’s experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.

The term “Homeroom”…still sends chills down my spine.  I was wedged for twelve years between Tammy T and Brad W.  Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me.   Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men’s imaginations.  Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance.  He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California.  We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.

The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change – – new and old faces, strange text books the size of War and Peace, anxiety that an upper classman like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner.  Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the 60s and 70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year.  A lifetime is a day.

I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence.  Miss S was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existance.  To Miss S, each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life’s seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.

There was the Vietnam Medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe’s donuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year.  He later married one of his students which seemed for some, to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight.  Secretly,  he still garners my write in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.  There was Mr R, the charasmatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue.  For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I – the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the High School Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the 70s, folks).  And one of my favs, Coach K, a sensitive and inspirational guy who produced championship swim teams and taught pre-Calculus and Algebra.  He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and once remanded our class with a punitive pop quiz  for behavior he saw within the student body that disappointed him.  I always had this theory that when he was young, he was on the wrong side of some bully and the experience transformed him into a sort of uber musketeer – – a D’Artagnon of the disenfranchised.

School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living.  Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones.  This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart.  Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole…” Everyone has this except me”.  “No one will be there, except me”.  “No one wears those anymore” Oh, that’s right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in Taxi Driver. “The teacher said we did not have to do that section”.  “I forgot my backpack at Teddy’s house”. On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage – the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick.  I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the “House of Pain” on a weeknight.  Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.

Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes.  Some do it quite spectacularly.   Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being “young and invincible “. It means cars are driven at break neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights – – you, with that big “ L” on your forehead.

In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate.  The lot was situated behind the woodshop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids.  I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different.  Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.  Invariably, they were always labeled as “bad kids”.  However, my Mom used to say, “There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences.” Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation.  Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth.  We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man’s land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers.  High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.

Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope.  I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.

I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound.  Beautiful women that no one recognized at first – ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor.  Others that had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume.  There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world.  Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, seventeen — vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.

Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning.  It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again.  To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval.  Now imagine it all that again for the first time.  Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences.  It’s a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently.  It’s about learning to fly and bumping your butt.  It’s back to school time parents, buckle up.

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are

 

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind…. and another

His mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything”…..Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are

 

We called it, “Animals in the Dark”.  In retrospect, it was a fitting name for a game that boys invented for the expressed purpose of rough-housing.  The rules were uncomplicated so even the least focused among us could instantly participate in the mayhem.  The goal was simple: survival.  One kid, usually a masochistic younger sibling, would draw the short straw to be blindfolded and turned lose into a pitch black room filled with bad intentions. 

The windows would be covered to achieve a perfect blackout.  The “animals” strained to adjust their eyes so they might be able to distinguish the defenseless, sightless victim as he wandered the room like Audrey Hepburn in Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark.  The animals were armed with make shift black jacks fashioned out of tube socks and pillows filled with underwear and knotted tee shirts.  Downstairs, an innocent Norman Rockwell scene unfolded with my Dad reading his newspaper, my mother baking a pie and a dog curled under the dining room table. But, all was not well……

 

My mother’s philosophy raising four boys was simple. There were no bad kids, only bad choices.  She understood the adolescent mind was a twisted topography of firebreaks and unconnected roads that often led to bad neighborhoods.  She also knew that adolescence was a protracted illness from which most would recover. She understood boys were physical forces of nature – wild things. Life was a succession of high and low pressure systems, constantly moving in and out of the geography of her boys creating dramatic and spectacular perfect storms of stupidity and achievement. When boys hit adolescence, their bodies started to wreak havoc – stretching, fighting, pulling and tugging.  Nothing seemed to properly fit a teenager and nothing could ever be fully articulated.  She understood that the body starved the brain, compensating for its exhausting Kafkaesque journey by conserving fuel for physical growth.  The brain would just have to catch up. Physiologically, this transformation caused teens to speak in a strange abbreviated dialect of “yups” and “nopes”. Boys became tribal animals learning the call of the wild and the unmistakable hierarchy of their pack.  They moved like herd animals in thick knots of baseball caps, shorts, athletic shoes and tunnel vision.  Life was whatever happened right in front of them. They had no peripheral vision.  They could hit a 20 foot jump shot but not seem to hit a toilet six inches in front of them.  They could remember the lyrics of a song or statistics of a third string running back but fail to remember to feed the dog or change their underwear.  Understanding the feral mind, my mom had a high tolerance for mischief and urged my father to develop a thicker skin to the slings and arrows of our outrageous behavior.  Boys will boys…

Max said ‘ Be Still” and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all….and made him king of all wild things. ‘And now’ cried Max, ‘ let the wild rumpus start!”

The door creaked ever slightly. A blindfolded silhouette stood hesitating, unable to enter but incapable of resisting the siren’s call of abuse that was waiting motionless like a thousand trap-door spiders.  The room was a black hole from which nothing could escape.   Slipping in through the narrow crease of light, the shadow stopped again.  The door shut and for a moment, no one breathed.  Thwack !  A scream and laughter.  Thwack!  Thwack !   A cry for help and more sadistic laughter.  The game quickly disintegrated into a riot at an English football match.  The hooligans escalated their blind battle with screams, yelling and then a sudden crash of a glass.  The room went still.  Someone was moaning on the ground and a shaken voice whispered,

“dude, what was that?”  “ I think it was Mom’s lamp”  Downstairs, the thumping had aroused the dog who looked up to the ceiling and whimpered. My mother suddenly stopped kneading her pie dough and wiped her floured hands on her apron.  Her trouble sonar was already returning with pings of concern.. As she walked to the base of the stairs, she caught a glimpse of my father’s backside as he is roared up the stairs in rapid two step leaps.  His shoes pounded on the red tile floor creating the sensation of a brakeless truck barreling down an alleyway.  “Dad!” my brother hissed.  Even my friends had acquired a healthy fear of my father’s temper as he felt he had every parent’s proxy to discipline their children as his own.   At this moment, everyone rapidly sought sanctuary – under a bed, in the adjacent room or under a blanket.   The door burst open followed by a machine gun burst of expletives.  Even the injured victim with a rapidly closing left eye was crawling for safety.  The game was over. 

Fast forward.  It is Friday night, a particular moment in the week when wild things begin to stir.  On this night, I agreed to host thirteen of my son’s friends for a sleepover. The numerical omen of 13 was lost on me as I picked up several padded warriors from football practice.  On the way home, we stopped for gas and I agreed to buy them each a soft drink.  Five cans of 16 oz. Red Bulls suddenly appeared in my car.  It would be a very long night. Within a half hour, the group had swelled to a full pack. The family dog was in heaven as he instantly understood that this would be no ordinary night.  The animals loped uninhibited across the darkness of our property playing “manhunt” – the modern day equivalent to Animals in The Dark.  They descended on the dinner of pizza like rabid carnivores and proved once again that the toilet remains the most elusive target on earth.  The Red Bulls were kicking in about 11:30 as they adjourned to the basement – the basement that rests directly under our master bedroom.  For the next several hours the pack was in full motion with thumping, screams, laughter and the occasional angry shout of a wild thing who had ended up on the wrong side of a practical joke.  I repeatedly walked down to enforce curfew and each time, was neutered by my own nostalgia at the sight of the boys draped all over one another like pups in a carton – not the least bit self conscious that they were firmly in one another’s personal space. 

At 2am, I drew the line.  I pounded down the stairs and threw open the basement door.  Facing into the darkness, I hissed, “It’s 2am.  We can hear everything you guys are saying. SHUT UP and go to bed.”  For a moment, there was silence.  I stood triumphant the king of the wild things.  As I turned to close the door, someone passed wind.  A dozen fatigued giggles erupted from the ebony cave.  I turned away, utterly defeated but secretly smiling.  Whoever had control enough over their body to make that noise at that exact time would be forever memorialized in the pantheon of wild things. 

The next morning, as each wild thing was returned to his handler, we began to clean up and reconstruct our day.  My son who had slept a grand total of two hours, sat dazed, exhausted and triumphant, head leaning on his cocked arm as he slowly lifted a fork of pancakes to his mouth.  I looked at him and saw myself in that wolf suit, making mischief and cavorting on the island that I would one day leave to become an adult. Across all the years and over all the oceans of time, it was still the best to be a wild thing. 

“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye.  And he sailed back over a year….and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him…

 

And it was still hot.“

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mater Ex Machina – Mom in the Machine

magna-mater-1971

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

Our family gatherings are now reduced to weddings, funerals, anniversaries and medical crises.  On these rare occasions, we reconnect through story telling, usually at the expense of our father.  Each son arrives with his own mental shoe box full of stories, taken out and mischievously shared.  My Dad takes it well but at times, contests our version of the “Brussel Sprout Affair” or disputes the actual percentage of our wages he garnished for punishments.  My mother, who is now stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, sits and listens intently as we gather to gently dredge the river of our lives.  Her loud laugh and tireless energy depleted by a disease that has conspired to rob her of her mobility and sense of serenity.  Her eyes still flash bright, opal blue when we recount the myriad stories which have become threads in a raucous and irreverent family tapestry.

My mother was made to have four boys.  She used candor, insight and trust to soften and shape the well intended but clueless denizen of men that she inherited.  She had a sixth sense about people and would often encourage us to “use our antennas to read people and situations”.  “Everyone’s antenna is different with some people picking up only major signals, like your father. Others, like short wave radio operators, pick up multiple signals making them both intuitive and easily distracted.”  Her intuition proved an invaluable asset to my father in business and in life.  She could anticipate situations, reading people, and disarming stiff customers with her humor and alarming candor. She longed for a daughter but resigned herself that her life would be a world filled with dirty toilet seats, sweaty clothes and GI Joes.  She waited patiently for the day that her sons might bring home girlfriends and wives – –   girls who would later be very alarmed by just how much these boys confided in their mother.

Jack Nicholson once yelled at Tom Cruise, “you want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”  My father was an advertising executive from a generation whose marital trousseau was limited to a strong work ethic.  He worked countless hours driven by the four horseman of financing college, orthodontia bills, mortgage and car payments.  My mother was left to serve as teacher, confessor and staff sergeant of this testosterone army.  She could handle the truth. Her army had basic rules:

1)    If I hear it from you first, the punishment will only be half as bad.  Her “tell me everything approach” worked as a catharsis for guilty minds and a means of teaching boys how to communicate.  The “tell me first “rule resulted in a scene to be repeated many times where a Turpin boy was seen racing home desperate to beat a patrol car or a neighbors call.  We referred to her as “Sodium Pentothal “as she could get anyone to tell her anything voluntarily.

2)    I’ll decide what I tell your father.  Given my dad’s limited bandwidth to deal with much beyond job and family obligations, my mother would not burden him with all the daily infractions and near death experiences that occurred.  She is only now breaking to him things that happened in 1982.

3)    I want you open to new things.  While my dad escorted us to church and religion each Sunday, my Mom offered us spirituality during the week.  She was curious about everything.  The house was littered with books about the sacred, profane and paranormal.  She reveled in history, scandal and alternative points of view.  She was a devil’s advocate that helped balance a house heavy with conservative dogma.  We read the bible on Sunday but Monday through Saturday, we perused books on psychic pets, the Bermuda triangle, famous hauntings and conspiracy theories (who really killed JFK, anyway).

4)    Grades: A’s meant freedom, B’s meant do your homework with the TV and radio off, C’s meant you are getting a tutor and D’s meant martial law.  My parents felt grades were “the canary “ in the obscure, coalmine existence of an adolescent.  There was no tolerance for poor academic performance.  However, there was patient recognition, (before terms such as Attention Deficit Disorder), that each kid learns differently.  She met with teachers.  She had the inside scoop on every person that made up our uneven world – teachers, friends, coaches, parents of friends.  She insisted on being informed.  All this from a woman who dropped out of college as a sophomore to marry a penniless, Army Second Lieutenant and later returned to complete college after 30 years to gain her degree.

In the wild seventies, she became a self anointed DEA officer.  She understood that a kid with red eyes and the pungent smell of smoke around them did not mean they had been out fighting forest fires, was struck by lightening or was just really tired.  Like a champion contestant on Name That Vice, she could identify bad behavior at 1000 yards and would never shy away from making sure we knew that she knew.  Her candor and caring made it safe for us and often for our friends, to confess issues that she could adroitly handle.

Her passion was the latest technology ( and useless gadgetry ) .  While this gave our family a critical start on personal computers well before most households knew that a Mac was anything but a burger, it also resulted in weird experiments: food being preserved under pyramids (Pyramid Power was big in the 70’s), dietetic forays – – no salt, all carbohydrates, no carbohydrates,  all fish, no fish, no fat, all rice, all protein, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Space Sticks and Tang ( if the astronauts can eat it, so can you boys).  Our house was a grand social and technological experiment in a period of great societal change. The 21st century Mom and the 19th century Dad managed the yin and yang of competing opinions, always agreeing on what mattered most.

We made all the classic mistakes. While our punishments usually fit our “crimes”, she defended us like a mother lion ‘lest anyone contend that her boys were “bad”.  She would always seem to appear in times of chaos to resolve the crisis du jour.   If I had one wish, it would be that I could descend and resolve the chaos of her Parkinson’s disease.  For my brothers and I she was,  “Mater Ex Machina”:  Mother in the Machine.

Chasing Pan’s Shadow

Chasing Pan’s Shadow

 

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country. ~ Kurt Vonnegut

 

Every five years, we are summoned by our past:  We receive phone calls and formal invitations to high school and college reunions.  Like mythological sirens these gatherings call to us, beckoning us to return to a gilded past that no longer exists.  Yet nostalgia is a potent opiate.  It deceives, ameliorates and intoxicates.  It is Peter Pan chasing his shadow but never quite being able to catch it.  It is initials carved deep into the ancient bark of a century-old magnolia.  It is a 60 watt light bulb and a Long Island Ice Tea.  It is an airbrushed view of life accentuated by the strong scent of jasmine and raw emotion – it is youth. 
 
Reunions spin through our lives like tornados – pulling us toward a vortex filled with the promise of lost horizons.  Some boycott these nostalgia festivals because they dreaded every minute of their painful adolescence.  Others agonize over whether attending the gathering of ghosts is worth the energy spent to get there and stay awake through dinner.  There are those whose high school or college days were life’s high-water mark; they long to regain their lost alpha status.  It’s all so emotionally charged. 

 

Thankfully, mathematicians and psychologists have recently teamed at Cal Tech to develop a complex algorithm that can objectively assist any person uncertain about attending a reunion.  The psycho-social formula requires adding one’s age, waist size and years of marriage, then dividing the sum by the number of times you’ve googled an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend or corresponded innocently with an ex on Classmates.com.  If your score is over 20, have fun.  However, if your score is 19 or less, you may be unprepared for this journey through the looking glass.  Consider the following scenarios and proceed with your eyes wide open…

You still carry a torch for that certain person and hope you can cross paths and innocently bask in the warmth of your old flame.  You joined Reunion.com ostensibly to see what others are “up to.”  Is this an innocent titillation with the past or a walk down a dark dangerous alley?  Answer:  Dark dangerous alley. It starts with an email exchange and ends up with an invitation to “have coffee” at some place called the Honeymoon Motel in Newark, NJ.  The reality is you will not find your old squeeze but instead someone who has inflated to 3000 psi and appears to have eaten your ex.  You must disguise your initial shock when hugging him/her, as you are now clutching a back that has wider landmass than Asia Minor.  Run away.

You want to once again see if you can drink keg beer, wear wrinkled shorts and flip flops, play Frisbee, climb over fences and stay up past 4 a.m. doing whatever it is one does after midnight.  Do you have what it takes?  Answer: You do not.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200.  Fat, drunk and stupid still remains no way to go through life.  You have infinitely more to lose now than when you were 20 years old, including what little dignity you have left.  Instead, just get hair plugs and buy some golf clubs.

You want to experience just for 48 hours that feeling of invincible abandon that was a trademark of your college experience.  You were young, cocky, bounced more checks than a security guard at a Prague nightclub and ate cafeteria food that even your carp-like Springer Spaniel would not ingest.  Will you find your mojo?  Answer:  No.  You had your “mo” snipped during an elective medical procedure in 1997.  All you have left is your “jo” (your wife’s code name for your belly).  Take the money you will otherwise need to pay for marital counseling and go to a New York Mets dream camp for 50 somethings.  You may take a hard line drive off the teeth or pull a quad muscle but hey, it’s better than having a divorce attorney hitting fungoes at you for six months straight.

You yearn to be autonomous again – independent in your thoughts and actions, candid in your points of view and idealistic in your pursuit of truth.  You listen to David Byrne of the Talking Heads lament your affluent conundrum: “And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, and you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, well…how did I get here?”  You reflect on this song over and over again.  You come to believe your reunion is a portal to perhaps a more innocent time.  Answer:  This sounds like a mid-life crisis to me.  The reunion is merely cover for you to begin indulging your self-pity, hubris and diminished self-importance.  Autonomy is not all it’s cracked up to be.  It means going home alone 99.9% of the time, eating Lean Cuisine dinners and sorting your own socks.  

 

You want to reassemble your old posse – you know, the group you called “the knuckleheads.”  You were madcap, outrageous pranksters – pulling stunts, throwing parties, occasionally missing a class or a urinal.  You now lead lives of quiet desperation and own the DVD Old School, which you can quote verbatim.  Each of you thinks you are the Luke Wilson character, but you are really Will Ferrell.  Can you gather one last time to recreate that old black magic?  Answer:  No dice, Wyatt Earp.  Your posse is now too heavy to ride horses or even sit on a wooden bar stool without breaking it.  Most of your caballeros want to strap on their guns and join your lost cause, but in the end, they can’t get a hall pass from la seňora.  The others are unwilling to sleep in a dorm room bed made for dwarves.

You miss “working with kids” and are interested in getting back involved with your school and alumni.  You crave deep intellectual conversation and feel you missed your calling as a teacher – perhaps you could guest lecture on macro economics, corporate finance or how to conduct an analyst call for over two hours without really saying anything of substance.  You want to connect with students and establish a strong bridge to this so-called Generation Z.  You see yourself as a critical facilitator in their journey.  After all, you’re an alumnus and share a common bond with these students.  Answer: Face it; you could not get into your alma mater today unless you could run a 4.4 40-yard dash.  Most of these kids believe the only thing you have in common with them is that you both breathe – although you do it more heavily.  Your university alumni office is delighted to meet with you to discuss a major financial contribution.  They’re intrigued by your ideas around guest lecturing and will be “certain to get back to you”…just about as quickly as you get back to those people who call at dinner time asking for donations to help save the endangered Connecticut Spotted Skink.

Tom Stoppard once said that “age is a high price to pay for maturity.”  Yet for all its traps and trepidations, a reunion’s lure is deep and compelling.  It allows us the chance to recapture old feelings, to make amends or exorcise old demons.  For most of us, it’s a pleasant Sunday afternoon ride down a reassuring and familiar street.  Here’s my only advice as you cruise down Memory Lane: keep your hands and feet inside the car, don’t drink and drive and never, ever pick up hitchhikers.  Do not forget nostalgia is driving the car and, as a wise man once remarked, “she is a seductive liar.”

The Summertime Blues

mowing

Well my mom and pop told me, “Son you gotta make some money,

If you want to use the car to go ridin’ next Sunday”

Well I didn’t go to work, told the boss I was sick

“Well you can’t use the car ’cause you didn’t work a lick”

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do

But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran,

My teenaged children explained to me the other day that summer was supposed to be a time for sleeping in, staying up late, sleep-overs and high end camps which indulged the mind, body and soul.  I shared with them that summer break was an anachronism, the last buggy whip of an age of tanned, outdoor laborers who planted, tended and harvested their own food.  The three-month holiday was invented in agrarian America to accommodate the need for child labor in the fields during planting season.  Summer was a time when “industrious” and “ dedicated” young men and women were shipped out to the countryside to earn the redeeming calluses only found on the end of a shovel, plow or milking stool. Sunday was the only day of rest and a time where community was not forged by incessant texting between a gaggle of unimaginative, acne-ridden teens but with your family and neighbors at church.  Fun was a relative term.  “Kids, isn’t it fun to pick this cotton? First one to get to two bushels, get’s a slice of Mom’ s blueberry pie that is cooling on the windowsill”  “Honey, let’s get up at 3:30am tomorrow instead of 4am to milk the cows.  What a time we had this morning with Old Bessie! “

My father understood clearly that idle hands were the devil’s workshop.  Summer was an outmoded and socialistic invention of a liberal government more riddled with commies than a deer has ticks.  Three months off from hard labor would render the US apathetic and defenseless.  When we had all become teenagers, he gathered us one May afternoon and announced that we must get jobs for the summer to finance our profligate spending habits.  Allowance, which he felt was tantamount to welfare, was a relic of our past. The problem with welfare, he moralized, was that people began to view it as an entitlement and became dependent.  Instead of serving its intended purpose as stop gap assistance until one could become self sufficient, welfare became a money tree under which one could indefinitely rest and still feel sorry for themselves.

Instead of reacting violently to being suddenly cut-off from the pater familius gravy train, we took the news reasonably well.  Summer could be boring and the chance to earn money starting any number of businesses seemed terribly exciting.  We were relishing the prospect of having our own money and as a result, not being subjected to statements like, “ whose money is this anyway?”, “ oh, that’s right, I went to work today and you sat here like a lazy sack of …”, “when you are eighteen and can pay your own way, then maybe I will listen to what you have to say.”

Each kid devised his own strategy on how to make money.  There were the low value ideas like lemonade stands and redeeming bottles and cans for change.  The primary source of income was of course, the hard labor of neighborhood yard work.  Somehow, cleaning someone else’s yard for money seemed less of an imposition than cutting one’s own lawn.  It’s my belief that years from now, sociologists will recognize The Boomer generation as the last of the “mow and rake” demographic – before swelling ranks of harder working “mow and blow” immigrants crowded us out with superior technology and indefatigable work ethics.  It would now seem like corporal punishment if I deigned to make one of my kids mow our lawn or rake leaves.

However, in the days of cold war, children were considered free labor and a landscaping professional was any kid who had used an electric mower or had facial hair. The main tool of the trade was the ancient lawn mower -a rusted manual cutting cylinder with a rotating blade.  The simple mechanical design was unimproved since it was invented in 350 BC by a Greek teen that could not swing a scythe but was told to cut the wheat or he could not attend the Poison Oracles concert that evening at the local amphitheatre. The mowing implement was harder to push than a field plow or shopping cart filled fifty-pound sacks of dog kibble and a broken wheel.

To operate the cast iron monstrosity, one would have to back up several paces to build enough momentum to cut through any lawn higher than one half inch. As the blade ripped through the various varieties of suburban grass – Bermuda, St Augustine, Fescue, and Kentucky Blue – the whirling blades filled the air with green shrapnel and debris.  By the end of a lawn cutting session, you resembled a bizarre grasslands creature –covered in flecks of emerald, sweat and whatever insects du jour were visiting for that season.  It seemed the grass fell everywhere except into the ancient canvas grass catch that hung precariously behind the machine on two hooks adjacent to the back wheels.

After cutting and raking up the grass, you were expected to edge the lawn with a device that looked like the unholy union of a jousting stick and a pizza cutter.  The metal blade knifed along the sidewalk and garden beds as you carefully trimmed the rectangle of property to geometric perfection. After all, an uneven yard suggested to your neighbors that if you could not control your lawn, how could you possibly hold the rest of your life together?

Leaves were accumulated with a bizarre device called a rake. It was a cumbersome implement made from fragile metal strips that made a distinct scratching sound as they were dragged across garden beds and backyards.  If raking was not tedious enough, the final indignity involved depositing your detritus into the trash.  Instead of launching leaves into your neighbor’s front drive or into woods where property lines blurred and ticks reigned, you were forced to stand in the trash cans stomping down on the debris to make room for more clippings.  Invariably, the trash can would tip vaulting you and your days work onto the cement where you would lie for moments, bleeding and angry that you must repeat this Promethean task all over again. .  Eventually, you succeeded and became expert in jamming eighty cubic feet of leaves into a 20-gallon trashcan.  It made my father quiver with pride to see his four sons bouncing up and down in his trash cans tamping down debris like serfs in the fields.  There would be times, when out of sheer elation he would come out and jump in the trash bin with us.

My eldest brother loathed this manual labor as it gave him blisters and uneven tan lines.  He quickly figured out that everyone needed his or her windows washed especially in the unfiltered light of a Southern California summer.  He formed a window washing business and proceeded to make a fortune.  It was genius – low overhead – a squeegee, ammonia, rags and an FM radio – and there was little competition.  He could complete a 3000 square foot home – inside and out in about three days bringing in $ 150. He quickly figured out that condos and apartment complexes had identical layouts, a fixed number of same sized windows and air conditioning.  He went door to door in upscale condos complexes offering to do windows for $40 a unit – usually completing his work in less than two hours.

The local YMCA helped out by creating a kid’s job bank where local citizens could call and offer a job including details of where, how much, when and who.  These were before the days of trucks driving down to Stamford to pick up highly industrious undocumented workers desperate for any paying job.  We were the labor force desperate for money and in those 70’s summers and we lived off an economy of yard work, spring cleaning and vacation support services – watering, feeding pets, gathering mail.  A community understood that it needed to create a consumer class among its kids to support our summer economy. Neighbors felt an obligation to keep the teens employed and out in the open where they might find less trouble, more supervision and self esteem.  Parents understood that their kids needed to work.

Years later, two of my three kids have summer jobs.  I am hitting .666, which is not a bad batting average for this Ivory Tower Division team. My third child is threatening to call protective services as he has determined that most ten year olds are not supposed to be working.  I point out that they are not supposed to be playing some game called “ Spore “ for 92 hours straight, either. He can earn cash around the house doing yard work, washing a car or a cleaning a window.  Minimum wage seems beneath him.  I am this close to pulling that lawn mower out and tasking him with taking on the front yard.  He may even grow a beard right in front of me just from the sheer maturation of the hard work and industry that would be foisted upon his narrow shoulders.

And then again, I may be forced to go out and help him – showing him how to cut, rake, edge and stomp on the cans.  I get dizzy just thinking about it.

Never mind.

Speed Sticks And Pushers

Speed Sticks and Pushers

 

Health class (n), 1. A compulsory educational tollbooth through which every middle school child must travel.  2. A valuable roadmap for pre and post pubescents to assist navigation along the highways of life.  3. A learning curriculum designed to reverse all disinformation learned from one’s older siblings

 

In the days of Nixon, Watergate and presidential pardons, health class was segregated between girls and boys. There was the domesticus curriculae, better known as Home Economics, for girls; and “Health” class for boys hosted by our mustached, dolphin shorted PE teacher Mr. Stebbins who my father sarcastically remarked looked like an adult film star.

 

While the girls were railroaded into baking, maintaining proper Redbook posture and ultimately hypnotized into believing that Prince Charming did actually exist and was out there waiting wearing clean underwear, boys were taught the proper techniques for donning a jock strap, avoiding women with venereal diseases and abstaining from drugs with names like ” bennies”, ” uppers”, ” downers”, “Horse” and “Mary Jane”.

 

We were subjected to anti-drug propaganda to scare us straight.  In the annals of anti-drug films, the 1967 classic, “Pit of Despair” stood as a classic – converting the most impressionable among us into paranoid purists who would rather die of influenza than take medication. After viewing  “Pit Of Despair”, I was afraid to take so much as a Bayer aspirin for fear of waking up running naked down the Santa Monica freeway shrieking, ” the moon is following me…and he has a gun!”

 

Every anti-drug flick offered a similar plot featuring a normal suburban kid relenting to peer pressure, and agreeing to attend a wild “tea” party with lava lamps, 30 watt bulbs, throw pillows, sitar music, bell bottomed girls and drug dealers known as “pushers”. In a lost weekend of drug and alcohol abuse, the protagonist ends up with more holes in his arm than a cribbage board, screaming as he looks at his party mates who are no longer people but grotesque demons with narrow pink beaks.  Instead of fleeing the den of iniquity, he takes a more direct route to the street, leaping out an open window shouting, “Look at me! I can fly!”.  Meanwhile, his emotionally dead friends look on in sociopathic indifference as a rag doll dummy floats horrifyingly with flailing arms down to the cement sidewalk below.

 

Some were quick to dismiss the exaggerated melodrama of “Pit of Despair”, but we were all on the look out for pushers. I was convinced anyone with long hair or a beard was a drug dealer.  Even Sammy Davis Jr. played a heroin dealer, Sportin’ Life, in the move, “Porgy and Bess”. He later sang a song in 1972 whose lyrics, I was convinced, were clearly code for encouraging drug use.  The innocent ditty, “The Candy Man Can”, was played on countless conservative AM radio stations and hummed by clueless suburban housewives as they picked out their Webber Bread in the grocery store.

 

Drug use obviously was rampant and if you sniffed, puffed or popped, you were likely to immediately grow long hair, quit taking baths and barely manage a two-syllable response to any question.  You pretty much just walked around all day saying, “solid, man.” These wild haired, drug crazed gutter trash were called “hippies” and they existed like body snatchers to co-opt you into a life of drugs, promiscuous sex and crime – the trifecta of worthlessness according to my father. John Lennon memorialized the quintessential hippie in the song, “Come Together.”  The Beatles were notorious for putting symbols and subliminal drug messages in songs like “Hey Jude”, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and even the “Yellow Submarine” extolling the virtues of expanding one’s mind with opiates and hard narcotics. 

 

The insidious creep of drugs had to be stopped.  According to my Dad, the “French Connection” from Marseilles to New York would need to be choked off in its tracks or America would become a giant opium den – succumbing to Communism because we could not see or hear the Reds coming through the haze of our smoke and loud music.

 

While girls blindly emerged from Home Economics as SWITs (Stepford Wives in Training) with new appreciation for the wonders of baking soda as a panacea for odors, heartburn and insect bites, boys suddenly saw powdered sugar and flour as sinister accessories for pushers to further corrupt the poison as they unleashed it on Main Street.

 

The officer who briefed us on drugs and the warning signs of addiction was a

Detective with a thick Brooklyn accent, which only seemed to underscore the gravity of our drug problem. After all, what’s a NY cop doing in Southern California unless the “connection” was somewhere lurking in the shadow of our ivory tower.  He told us about cartels and drug lords.  He told us to watch for pushers hanging around the playground and baseball fields.

 

As we jogged in gym class, we pondered the identity of the alpha pusher running our town’s local drug ring.  Who was “Mr. Big?”  The big kahuna was often depicted in movies as a benign law abiding citizen by day and a ruthless distributor of narcotics, prostitution and murder by night.  Perhaps he could be our middle school principal, Mr. White. If he was the man, he could not be working alone. His VP of students, Mr. Gilligan, must be the strong arm of the operation – dealing not only drugs but also detentions.  These clever punishments delayed kids after school and forced them to walk home alone where his network of pushers might more easily trap them. 

 

I confided my entire theory to my brother and was immediately ratted out to my father.  My Dad was furious, “You will get our butts sued.  Michael. What were you thinking?”  Weighing the cost/benefit of investigating a major drug ring but having to weed the backyard until the year 2015, I gave up on Mr. White.  However, I never stopped scanning the playground for dealers.  Sportin’ Life could be anywhere waiting to snare us into a life of addiction.

 

I am now told that today’s health classes are more politically correct but remain true to the major building blocks of adolescent development – drug and alcohol prevention, body change, sexual responsibility and hygiene.  We can always tell when Health class is in session as one of our boys comes home smelling like a Mennen Speed Stick.  For the next week, the boy is a walking Glade Room freshener as he lathers his entire body with deodorant hoping to attract someone or something.  Usually, he attracts a few flies and the cat. At dinner, he informs us about hygiene as if we were immigrants just off the boat on Ellis Island.  My wife nods with a sardonic smile indicating that perhaps her husband could use a refresher course. 

 

Health class seems not to have lost its punch.  It may carry a different scent and rely less on fear than information but it has come of age. It has kept pace with the 21st century and has finally understood that health is in the end, a coed experience.  Kids do not seem too concerned about pushers and are clearly more informed about the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles.  Yet the Achilles heel of each generation is the fact that they believe they know more than their elders.  Alas, they are still kids. The rote facts they learn are only words and not always understood.  We only hope these seeds of health and wellness germinate at the right times.

 

And judging from the fact that my son has not bathed in three days, not everyone is practicing what is being preached.  I have to go find that Speed Stick and leave it under his pillow.

 

 

 

Kiss Me You Fool

Cover of "A Place in the Sun"
Cover of A Place in the Sun

“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.'” – Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 3

It was a first kiss much like many other first things – awkward and tinged with an electric guilt that always accompanied the first taste from a forbidden apple.  Everyone was making out – – at least this was the scouting report from the locker room, a pubescent hot stove network of chronic adolescent liars. If I was to believe my friends wrapped in their microscopic dish rag gym towels, shivering in the cold morning air that coursed through the frosted gymnasium windows, everyone had gotten to first base – Everyone with the exception of me.

Seventh grade was a treacherous strait of hormone infested waters set against a skyline of uneven boys and girls of every imaginable height.  Each kid was a building under construction – – from awkward skyscrapers to stunted single story apartments.  Your body was in the first act of some Kafkaesque transformation and your mind was becoming ready and cautiously willing to explore the perfumed corners of a universe that suddenly seemed more complex than just one year before.  In retrospect, middle school girls were much more predatory than their more slowly evolving opposites. Girls matured faster than boys and had a greater curiosity for the strange hieroglyphics of love.  These budding drama queens were hardly advanced in the sending and receiving of the signals of attraction.  It was more that they had become in love with the idea of being in love and required a supporting actor to experiment with life’s passion play.  Boys became willing and fumbling accomplices but were ill equipped to navigate the contradictions of romance.  Inevitably, their inability to comprehend the opposite sex fated most nascent relationships to life spans measured in hours and days. At first, I lied like all the rest of them, boasting of a torrid affair with a thirty year old school teacher in Arizona while on vacation with my family at the Grand Canyon.  Upon rigorous interrogation from a cerebral cynic named David Schuck, my story shifted and became even more colorful.    Several boys “oohed” and “aahed” but David remained tortured and unconvinced, leering at me with the squinting eyes of a conflicted moral inquisitor.

My preoccupation with kissing was in fact, more deeply rooted in an early childhood spent watching classic movies with my mother who could never convince my father to watch any film that did not end with someone being shot with a 44 magnum.  We would hoist a large basket of laundry into the den and fold clothes while Bogie clutched Bacall and Gable fell for Lombard.  There was the frozen fated kiss of Lara and Zhivago and the lushly, seductive lips of Rita Hayworth corrupting a naïve Tyrone Power in “Blood and Sand”.  Yet, the best kiss – the greatest kiss of all time, was between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in The Sun”.  That lip lock was a union of two magnificent forces of nature, the fated kiss of two young immortals – irresistibly drawn to one another in a timeless American tragedy that would conspire to keep them apart. Their chemistry was extraordinary and palpable enough that even a kid could understand how passion could penetrate the soul.  While most boys my age hid their eyes at such a union with a muffled groan, I tilted my head while my mouth slowly moved mimicking the kiss.  I was transfixed. All I knew is I needed to be ready when my Elizabeth Taylor came along.

I practiced on the full-length mirror in my bedroom until my little brother walked in on me and accused me of being a Homo Sapien.  I was highly offended by the allegation and punched him in the stomach.  My burst of masculinity seemed to dissuade him from casting furthering aspersions on my manhood.  But I needed to practice – resorting to kissing my arm until my mother asked me why I had so many strange bruises along my forearm.  “They almost look like… hickies” I heard her tell my father.

Yet the more I analyzed the actual art of kissing, the more disgusting it seemed. It involved opening your mouth very wide, like a basking shark and then attaching yourself to her mouth which was also open wide.  One of you would have a strained neck by the end of the process but it was necessary to attach your mouths and hold your breath for as long as possible until one of you swooned, passed out or just pulled away saying, “ no, this is all wrong”.  There were even more disturbing rumors of Kissing 2.0 which involved wandering tongues. For someone like me with a sensitive gag reflex, an unwelcome tongue could precipitate an apocalyptic disaster.  It was all so complicated and troubling. Yet, with each gym class, my biological clock was ticking louder than an aging debutante. I was convinced that everyone had “ made out”.  Even Jim Emmett, the lowest form of amoeba on the seventh grade social food chain and master of the habitual lie, purported some type of liaison with the check out girl at the Market Basket grocery store.

It was Valentine’s Day, a day I had come to loathe.  On this day, Valentines with candied Necco hearts were delivered from secret admirers and romantic interests.   To raise money, service clubs would sell the Valentines with messages like “ Be Mine” or “Love You”.  A “popular” person could receive scores of Valentines or perhaps like Charlie Brown some might be left with a single Valentine from their math tutor Mrs. Hearn.

My secret valentine arrived after fifth period social studies.  All it said was, “ Kiss Me”.   I looked around the room, hoping that by some miracle it had been sent to me by the statuesque Scandanavian goddess, Kerry Kostlan.  Our eyes met but her gaze was filled with only her normal contempt.  Brad Wetmore leaned over and whispered, “I know who sent you that Valentine.  Meet me after school.” Instead of excitement, panic immediately set in.  I glanced at the clock and it was already 2:00pm.  I had left my emergency osculation kit at home – Spearmint Binaca and English Leather cologne. At 3PM, I would most likely meet “her” and perhaps she would want her kiss.  This was not going according to plan.  Perhaps, my rite of passage could wait a tad longer.

As the bell sounded, I raced to my locker and on toward the bike racks where I would flee home on my ten speed.  As I turned the corner, I saw Bradley.  He motioned for me to come over to where he was half hidden in a shadowed passageway between the gymnasium and woodshop.  Behind him was his girlfriend, Kolynn and a shy girl with long tangled blond hair.  It was Tracy, Kolynn’s best friend. Minutes later, we were playing truth or dare and Kolynn dared me to kiss her best friend.  The moment was at hand.  It was not Elizabeth Taylor on the balcony of a Newport Rhode Island mansion.  It was a kind-eyed, chestnut-maned girl with a mouthful of steel and a horse-faced overbite. I moved toward her and she smiled the nervous half grin of a willing neophyte.  I tilted my head and squinted my eyes opening my mouth – wide, very wide.  Through the haze of my eye slits I could discern total amusement as her eyes laughed with compassion.  She moved over and grabbed my chin, closing my mouth awith the pinch of her thumb and forefinger, and pressed her lips onto mine.  My chest filled with tiger-tailed butterflies while my knees yielded to the electricity. Her mouth was warm and soft like dough frosted with cherry lip-gloss.  I held my breath and waited.  I was about to pass out as I no one had informed me that a man was allowed to breathe out of his nose while making out. She thankfully moved away, floating off and smiling.  “See you later” she giggled and whispered something to Kolynn, who laughed.

Later as Bradley and I rode our bikes home, I was triumphant.  I tried to be cool but I could not contain my enthusiasm.  I just wanted to talk.  In fact, I was talking so much, I did not notice that Bradley was no longer behind me, and had turned off a block before to go home.  “So what did she say,“ I said, as I turned around to an empty street. I did not see Bradley nor the parked car but I do remember very distinctly the metallic crash and a flash of excruciating pain in my hand.  I looked down and my finger was bent back to my hand – obviously dislocated.  There was a brutal shock of electricity up my arm as I shook my hand and suddenly felt the joint pop back into its socket.

The hand was already swelling and my bike was a mess.  As these were the days before helicopter parents and cell phones, I walked the ruined bike home, cupping my hand to my chest.  But all I could think about was that kiss.  I had finally made it to first base and joined Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable and Bogart.

In fact, I was pretty sure not even Bogie had ever held his breath as long as I held mine with Tracy.  Must be all that exercise in gym class.

That Championship Season

That Championship Season

 

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 

Henry V, William Shakespeare

 

There is a weathered show box in my den that hides inconspicuously behind uneven, dusty piles of rubber banded baseball card and old Sports Illustrated magazines.  The contents of this magical ark are talismans of my youth – awards, medals, merit badges and obscure honors bestowed for noble deeds and feats of athleticism and academic excellence. The artifacts have miraculously survived my teenaged years, college, first apartment, starter home, as well as moves to and from Europe.  Each time I pack and unpack the things that I choose to define my material world, I cannot help but open that one time capsule that vaults me back to a vulnerable and powerful time where the mythology of world and all its possibilities stretched before me like a great, dark wood. There is one particular object of enormous sentimental value that rests silently within this box – an odd felt patch that simply says 1973 Green Hornet Award – Champions 1973. It represents the one time in all my years of competitive sports that I played on a championship team. 

 

At 12, I had been part of an eleventh hour trade – the kind of transaction that is often borne out of the larceny of a parent coach who cannot help taking advantage of a more chaste opposing coach.  I was dealt to a new baseball team, (presumably for two pitchers and a kid still in his diapers), that had lost all but one game the prior season.  My new coach wanted to win badly but insisted on starting his child at pitcher and shortstop when in fact, his son was already exhibiting signs that he would rather be braiding the hair of his sister’s Barbies than throwing strikes.  We all understood in our own way that our coach was attempting to defy Mother Nature at our expense and she was paying us back cruelly with lopsided losses.  Son and father finally answered our prayers and quit the team after a spectacular confrontation in the dugout, possibly over shoes that did not match his belt. 

 

A white knight volunteer coach whose children had long since outgrown the confines of a 60-foot diamond rescued us.  He was tough – making us run laps and field ground balls off our chest.  He yelled. He used running as a cruel reprisal for the simplest infraction.  I hated him at first and complained bitterly to my father.  After my describing my tormentor, my father chuckled and said, “sounds like Bobby Knight.  I like him already.”

 

After all, I was a pacifist.  I wasn’t sure exactly what a pacifist was but it sounded like they never had to run and spent a lot of time in the Pacific ocean.  The fact is, if I had been born ten years earlier, I would have been one of those turtle necked peaceniks putting daisies into the barrels of National Guardsman guns at Kent State.  I was a heavy kid with a strong arm and big swing but a suburban soft constitution.  The coach figured me out as lazy but also pegged me correctly as competitive, people pleaser. At our next practice, he introduced the concept of the “Green Hornet”, an award for the player that exhibited the greatest hustle.  “Hustling” to me was walking very fast when everyone else was running.  The first evening, I pushed myself hard to win the award.  I was thrilled at my ability to avoid being dead last in our sprints. When the award was being presented, I stood up humbly ready to give my acceptance speech.  Instead, the award went to Charlie Meagher, a skinny second baseman who insisted on finishing every sprint in first place.  He couldn’t even hit and made at least two errors an inning.

 

For the first few weeks, I decided to be indifferent to winning the coveted Green Hornet – a stupid piece of forest green felt cut into an incomprehensible shape.  But I secretly wanted that award.  I needed to have it. I asked coach why I had not received the recognition.  He looked at me for a long time, choosing the right words.  “Because you only give the minimum, Mike.  I want 100% from you.” I felt like saying, “I am a kid. We don’t even do percentages until the 8th grade!” But I understood clearly what he was saying.  Over the next several weeks, I pushed myself and finally won one of those Green badges. That season, we transformed from the Bad News Bears to a bad neighborhood.  Teams dreaded playing us.  Some opposing parents resented our success and immediately started to talk about our coach. “He’s so intense!” ” He takes things too seriously.  He doesn’t get that this is youth sports.”

 

We saw it differently.  My coach was trying to teach us how to succeed.  He never denigrated a single kid. He treated us equally, yet individually administered his theology of competition based on our ability.  It was not about winning.  It was about giving it everything you had. In sports as in life, the man who wanted it more was the man who usually prevailed.  He never took a swing, threw a pitch or fielded a grounder in a single game.  It was all us.  The day we won the championship, everyone celebrated.  He made a point of sharing how every kid had his fingerprints on that trophy.  He told us that we would remember this game and this championship forever because he knew a championship is the harmonic convergence of many things – talent, opportunity, heart, preparation, will and character. I can remember each kid at each position, with eye black and caked red dust streaked with sweat.  Champions.

 

It was interesting for me this year to watch as both of my sons’ football teams won hard fought championships.  Each boy played his heart out.  Both played for tough and demanding coaches.  They responded by rising to the occasion and pushing themselves. They wanted a championship – bad.  They wanted to don that laurel that the number one man wears, the FCFL Champions jacket with their own name and number embroidered on the sleeve.  To wear a jacket like that is to prove you exist.  It is the red badge of courage, the uniform of the accomplished. The boys wanted to be part of a tribe that had achieved the very best.  Each boy spent over 95 hours on the practice field. I never heard a peep out of them.  One night, one of them threw up during a grueling practice.  He only expressed astonishment from the fact that one could actually exercise so hard that one could get sick. If it had been me, I would have been calling my attorney, if I had one. 

 

Both championship games were nail biters and will forever be remembered in the folklore of these young men as the 6-0 defensive win over Westport and the 19-12 Ice Bowl victory at Darien. When the gun sounded at the end of the game, the boys celebrated in a manner that only coaches and players know, the boy moving closer to manhood and the coach now a surrogate parent for life.

 

As our lives sweep into adulthood, we accumulate many things and often lose that shoebox full of treasured memories and mementos.  The roar of a crowd, the crack of a bat or the squeaking of high tops on a gymnasium floor triggers a familiar feeling.  It is the echo of lost youth and past accomplishments – an energy that never dissipates. The soul of that exact moment lingers.  It is the spirit of a time where for once in your life, you gave it everything you had and you were rewarded the ultimate prize.  As I listen to my boys preen and recount their accomplishment and as I watch them hug and high five their teammates and coaches, I smile.  I mentally open my shoebox and caress that tired scrap of green felt and think, what a season that was …that championship season.

 

Turkey Bowl

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing a tur...
Image via Wikipedia

Turkey Bowl

Lucy van Pelt: Charlie Brown, I’ll hold the ball and you run up and kick it.

Charlie Brown: Hold it? Ha! You’ll just pull it away and I’ll fall flat on my back and kill myself.

Lucy van Pelt: I wouldn’t do that. It’s Thanksgiving.

Charlie Brown: What does Thanksgiving have to do with anything?

Lucy van Pelt: One of our most cherished traditions is the Thanksgiving football game.

Charlie Brown: Gee, I guess if it is a tradition, it would be an honor. She wouldn’t pull it away if it is a tradition. This time I’m gonna kick that ball clear to the moon!

[he runs to kick the ball, but Lucy pulls it away]

Charlie Brown: Aaauuugh! [falls flat on his back]

Lucy van Pelt: Isn’t it peculiar how some traditions just fade away?   – Charles Schultz, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

The Thanksgiving Day football game is a rich side dish served on a day where each American consumes an average of 16,000 calories while at the same time giving thanks for life’s simplest pleasures.  On this gilded holiday, we are reminded of the blessings that we often take for granted such as proton pump inhibitors, analgesic heat rubs, knee braces and a gluteus minimus that does not swell into a gluteus maximus after a long touchdown run.  The Turkey Bowl is a ritual whose championship trophy is forged from silver bragging rites and golden nostalgia.  It’s principle ingredients are any ambulatory human aged 6-60, a beat up football and most importantly, mud – – caked, brown malleable clay, a symbol of our temporal toil and a timeless tribute to our agrarian DNA.  As Americans, we landed in the mud, we rose out of the mud, we fought in the mud, eventually we hired other people to work for us in the mud and then we invented Tide to eliminate any evidence that we ever actually consorted with mud.  But, each Thanksgiving morning, we return to the peat bogs of our past to refresh old rivalries and lay claim to another year of bragging rites and hyperbole.

In California, Thanksgiving arrived unceremoniously on a warm desert wind sweeping down across silent, vacant freeways and empty schools.  Our house fashioned out of Marine Corps dogma and the testosterone of five men grew restless at the percussion of chopping knives and the regular entreaties for someone to “please peel the potatoes and green beans.”  The low dulcet tones and punctuated spikes of laughter from a generation of kitchen matriarchs mixed with the reassuring aroma of sautéed onions and baking turkey.  A football suddenly bounced off the den window.  Outside, a boy in sweats had appeared, grinning in a tear away shirt and cleats.  There was a sudden rush of motion as we mustered outside ready to bike the two blocks to our local junior high school where a sea of jerseys and baseball caps pitched and argued over the balance of talent and rules of engagement.

The local Turkey Bowl was a one time annual opportunity to run with the larger dogs of our neighborhood – – siblings home from college and older kids that would normally look right past you as too small or too insignificant to join them in any sport.  Yet, on this day, a spirited tackle or timely body block might win a rare compliment from an older idol that would be gratefully deposited in one’s shoebox of memorabilia and taken out many times over a lifetime of self reflection.  There were broken bones and stitches – -badges of honor and fodder for the bragging rite debates that would ensue later in the winter.  As in life, there were broken plays, personal fouls, selfless acts, winners and losers.  There was instant acceptance when one was picked to play on a team.  It was a Christmas morning thrill to watch as an older teenager opened his muddy, catcher’s glove palm and designed a play, especially for you – “Turp, go five yards out and turn around.”  It was the old button hook and it was my play, designed exclusively for me like a jewel encrusted Faberge egg.  Me! – a mere 11 year old paramecium was deemed worthy of possibly receiving a pass from this multi-celled seventeen year old God.  Just one problem, I was being guarded by a sixteen year old with bad acne, mood swings and suborbital ridges that suggested that someone in his family was discovered by Dr Leakey.

“Ready, set, you bet, go Charlie go, hike!”

As I sprinted to my spot, the older defender shoved me roughly to the ground like a rag doll.  “Sorry kid” he flipped with a smirk.  Back in the huddle, everyone was hissing that they were open. I was busy rubbing the dirt out of my eyes. Each down, I was repeatedly tossed to the ground unable to complete my “button hook.” By the fourth quarter, I had eaten more mud than an earthworm. The score was tied 49-49.  I had not touched the ball.

Someone’s sibling rode up with a summons from home and there was talk of ending this year’s grudge match in a tie. “That’s like kissin’ yer sister” someone yelled.  Another shouted,” One more set of downs!”  I was once again lined up against my delinquent tormentor but instead of running my assigned button-hook, I turned suddenly and sprinted long as if the devil himself was chasing me.  I screamed and waved my hands.  The ball was launched in my direction and my heart leapt as I stumbled through the mud never taking my eye off the spiraling pigskin. My opponent had fallen down and I was alone behind the defense.  The pass seemed to hang in the autumn air for an eternity.  It fell into my arms and bounced off my chest careening away from my body.  I dove forward grasping like a drowning man, my arms and fingers straining for the deflection.  My fingers clawed under the muddy ball preventing it from hitting the dirt.  I fell awkwardly feeling a white flash of pain in my knee.  But I held on.  Celebratory screams from down field confirmed my reception and as I rose grimacing, I spiked the ball.  With the TD, the game disintegrated. But, our team had won.

As I limped to my bike, I heard the deep baritone of the seventeen year old icon, “great catch, Turp”.  I blushed with self conscious satisfaction and weaved my way home, tossing the ball in the air and catching it.  Later, as I donned my dreaded holiday dinner ensemble, the shirt collar did not feel so tight, and the gray wool slacks did not itch so much, and the hand me down loafers did not bite my heels   That night, turkey never tasted so good.  The mashed potatoes melted on my tongue like butter on a hot skillet. The pumpkin pie seemed snatched straight from the open window sill of an Amish farmhouse.

On this day, I had much to be thankful for.  I had entered the pantheon of Turkey Bowl heroes, scoring the winning touchdown.  Me, the single cell amoeba.  Perhaps, I was on my way to evolving into something bigger, and more noble.  Alas, I would have to wait until next Thanksgiving.  Only 364 days to go.

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets.  I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?  ~Erma Bombeck, “No One Diets on Thanksgiving,”

 It’s 6:00PM on Thanksgiving day and the house is like an opium den.  Scores of adults are draped over furniture, lying on their sides staring vacantly at the Alcorn State versus Miami of Ohio football game.  Most do not even know where Alcorn State is but when sedated with tryptophan, a Pop Warner preseason game can hold one’s attention.  The sounds of dishes and glasses being washed somewhere in the distance will not motivate the majority of these living dead to move.  They may shift slightly reaching out a pathetic hand, trying to stop a child racing by and co-opt them into bringing them a diet coke.    

 In the house of my youth, my father and grandfather were always first through our Thanksgiving Day food line.  Chivalry died each Thanksgiving at 2:59pm when the lords of the manor felt it was their prerogative to initiate our caroling of consumption.  The men would move slowly like bull elephants, surveying each dish like discriminating judges at a Midwestern bake off.  To my mother’s horror, they would heap massive portions on their plates, amassing Mt Everests of food.  My grandfather would usually stuff a roll in his mouth as he inched along, and would occasionally turn and spray bread crumbs on us saying something completely incomprehensible.  “Dad, don’t talk with your mouth full”, my mother would scold him.  She was quietly doing the math on food portions and realized that it was now unlikely that anyone under six foot tall would be eating anything other than yams and a couple of green string beans. 

 Thanksgiving was highlighted by a morning playing smash mouth football at the local elementary school.  We pulled every muscle, bent every finger, bloodied every nose and assumed the identity of every pro and college football star over the course two decades of the November Thursdays.  Everyone had the same idea and the fields would quickly crowd with familiar and strange new faces.  Each kid would show up with relatives from across the country who were making their every other year pilgrimages to visit relations.  We filled the offensive line with first and second cousins, kids with strange accents, hailing from exotic places like Dee-moyne and Merry-land.  They wore football jerseys with affiliations to schools such as the University of Iowa and The Maryland Terps.  In some cases, these kids played dirty using little known adult techniques such as crack back and body blocks.  There would be sudden fights, the way animals suddenly turn on each other at a watering hole as they seek alpha status.  Just as quickly, punches turned to slaps on the back.  “Hey, Hawkeye, good tackle!”

 The score of the game was never completely tracked and invariably, the entire game broke down into a massive scrum, once the first group of kids pealed away to go home.  Usually a twelve year old girl would ride up to the school fence and yell, “Jimmy, Mom says to get your butt home right now or you are going to be in HUGE trouble..”  As we melted away from the muddy grass, we piled through our back door full of dirt and bravado. Our mother would gasp and tell us to remove all our dirty clothes on the back porch. We would sprint naked past a sitting room of elderly relatives, perhaps flashing a rear end in a cheeky response to a dare.  Off in the distance, CBS sports announcers, Pat Summeral and Tom Brookshire were overheard discussing some aspect of a pathetic Detroit Lions offense. Thanksgiving was the one holiday likely to be celebrated by everyone you knew irrespective of their religious affiliation.  A baking turkey blended with the aroma of sautéed onions and stuffing created the most reassuring of all moods.  It was a time for family – -no distractions, gifts, holiday cards, competing social obligations, religious services or pressured traditions.  It was about eating and talking with your mouth was full.  

 Thanksgiving also heralded the beginning of the season of family dysfunction.  Like the swallows returning each year to the California Mission at San Juan Capistrano, age old scars and disagreements could suddenly flare.  “Liberals” and “Conservatives” were terms assigned to people as we listened to the generations of adults debating the economy and foreign policy.  I ascertained enough to learn that liberals were really enemy Soviet agents and were doing their best to turn America into a Baltic state.  For example, LA’s newly created HOV lane, known as the “Diamond Lane“ was created by a liberal who wanted to encourage you to have more children so you could get more money from welfare.  I assumed that meant the majority of the cars in that lane were driven by Catholics.  I was not sure what welfare was but I began to suspect having more than four kids was a great financial burden.  Why else would you need financial assistance?

 Our governor was Ronald Reagan.  He could do no wrong.  He looked like the guy you wanted to give the ball to on the last play of the game because somehow he would score.  In this era of less political correctness, the tenor and tone grew sharper as the meal wore on.  My Mom would pretend not to hear.  My grandmother was from a generation that had long since abandoned personal views that differed from her husband. My grandfather would nod in agreement and pour himself his fourteenth scotch. This was the stuff Norman Rockwell brushed over a bit in his painting.

 As the voices rose, every woman would excuse herself, ostensibly to help clean up, but really to escape the dogma and vitriol.  It was a sort of dine and dash.  We loitered near the table torn by boredom and the hope to overhear one of my father’s infamous blue streaks of swear words.  No amount of pumpkin, pecan or apple pie could anesthesize his dislike for Democrats.  As we got older and the table filled with socially responsible daughter-in- laws and independent thinking spouses, my father softened his words and picked his metaphors more carefully. Yet, his passion and his deep conviction could not always be restrained.  Thanksgiving was a time to be grateful and gratitude included appreciating those that kept our economy chugging, our country safe from foreign interests and our minds out of the gutter.  It seemed reasonable, just a little devoid of compassion.  My mother would always try to stem the bellicose editorial by suggesting, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full”.

 Today, the bodies are still draped across the house like accident victims.  The Thanksgiving topics are more politically correct. However, the epicenter remains family – – the chance to fill rooms with the voices of generations, laughing, debating, wrestling, struggling, rising and falling.  The spirit of Thanksgiving is still all about “us”.  We are a unit – – a team that looks out for one another, tolerates each other’s strange foibles and diverse political views and remain deeply bonded by the fact that no one on earth knows us better or loves us more unconditionally. 

 John-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell, is other people”.  When it comes to Thanksgiving, hell is an empty house and having someone NOT tell you not to talk with your mouth full. . 

 

 

 

 

 

Me and Myself and the Mets

Shea Stadium - 2007 New York Mets-Boston Red Sox
Image via Wikipedia

To my friend David, who is convinced that on the first day, God created the baseball stadium – and it was good.

April 17, 1964 – David was 8 years old, the same age of his father when his dad died of a sudden heart attack.  The father’s painful loss was hidden away like an old memento stored in the dark crawl space that lies between the present and the past. In a working class family, the patriarch was king.  To lose a father as a boy was to suffer an egregious identity theft, a deeply traumatic felony that robs a child of innocence and adolescence. The son, now a father, was suddenly fitted with size 34 pants and spent the next decade growing into them.

But on this day, for the father to be taking his young son to the opening of Shea Stadium, after a morning at the New York World’s Fair, must have seemed like he had hit a celestial round tripper.  The son clutched his father’s hand, a great catcher’s glove of security and watched as the world unfolded in a great sea of orange and blue.   It wasn’t the young boy’s first major league game but it was unlike the ancient brick of the New York Yankees.  There was a thrill of seeing something new, a franchise and a stadium with its whole future ahead of it, unencumbered by the gilded chains of nostalgia.  For father and son, the day represented all of life’s possibilities.

The Mets were hapless supporting actors in a play that ran every day in Queens.  “ A face only a mother could love” a favorite expression to describe anyone whose endearing under-achievement and ineptness condemned them to the fringes of society. The Mets, not unlike their fans, were a roster of young and old assembled by a general manager making the best of a tough situation.  In their first seven seasons, the team was a combined 394 – 737 for a winning percentage of .348.  For many in Queens, the basement seemed a familiar, reassuring place.

The father and son never had season tickets for any New York area sports teams.  In life and in sports, the father was never a great spectator. That dark corridor that he was forced to walk alone between eight and eighteen left him focused on doing, not vicarious living. He never went to college.  It seemed as if he was born and then went to work.  But like so many of his era, he never shirked his responsibilities.  He married, enlisted in the service during the Korean War and came home to start a family.  Yet, he was drawn to the Mets.  In life and in baseball, great teams were characterized by a blue collar work ethic – – the predictable integrity of repetition and the character of never accepting a mediocre result regardless of how mundane your own assignment might be. . The Mets represented a less than glorious franchise, located in perhaps the least glorious part of town.  Some called them the workingman’s team.  His loyalty to the Mets somehow softened his hard childhood – abandoned by his father and their baseball team, the Giants, who left NY to move to California in 1959. It just made sense that this orphaned soul would adopt this team.

In a world wracked by uncertainty, the son looked to the father for predictable leadership.  The son’s successes were nourished by the staples his Dad provided – durability, punctuality and resilience. With his son, the father maintained the distance of a third base coach and his star player, choosing to convey his delight or displeasure with subtle signs and signals – – a twitch of an eye brow, a hand to the chin or the sudden clap of determined encouragement, “C’mon, get a hit!” Trust, emotional proximity and unconditional support were the foundation of their relationship. It was as if they were seated next to one another in life’s stadium – each with their own ticket but sharing the game together.

Life is all about perspective. In the 1960’s, most of the boy’s friends were Yankee fans.  Following the Bronx Bombers seemed to represent a superficial kind of loyalty – something borrowed because it was popular and easy.  At 13 years old, the boy was at the peak of his adolescent fanaticism. He had recorded the entire Mets line up neatly on my seventh grade denim three-ring notebook. In June, the boy asked his dad if he would take him to a Mets game.  The entire neighborhood was elated that the lowly Metropolitans, a team that had lost 120 games in 1962 and were synonymous with last place, were now in first place with a chance for post- season play.   The dad asked his son to get him the schedule, and confidently pointed to the last home game of the season and boldly announced “The Mets will clinch the division championship here”.  On September 24, 1969, they were rewarded with a miraculous NL pennant for their unwavering loyalty to “ the Lovable Losers.”  1500 miles away, Chicago Cub fans were writing another painful chapter in their star-crossed history.  To this day, the son reminds his father of his Kreskin-like powers of prediction.

The son still recalls that night – the air thick with cautious anticipation and an ill fall wind that seemed full of broken promises for a winning season. When the Mets won the game, father and son erupted with the entire sea of humanity spilling on to the field. Today it would be impossible to penetrate the phalanx of mounted police that line the field.  That night, they roamed the stadium as if it was their own front yard.  On that day, the boy began to understand what the father had always conveyed to him – that anything was possible.

September 28, 2008 – It was never an option that they would not attend the final game at Shea Stadium to pay their respects to the passing of an age of innocence.  The father, now 80, complained to his son about his legs, and in doing so, foiled the boy’s best laid plans to retrace their 1964 “walk” into Shea.  The son, now a successful executive, had season ticket located two rows behind home plate.  Their journey from nose bleeder bleacher seats to the prime field level real estate was a map of their life’s journey.  The father had not seen Shea in 20 years.  The Mets lost, eliminating any hope of a post-season birth.  Yet, it was somehow apropos.

For a team as famous for losing as winning, it was a fitting eulogy.

Too Young To Die

Too Young To Die

I recall my so called misspent youth
It seems more worthwhile
Every single day
Cruisin’ Van Nuys and acting so uncouth
All the joys of runnin’ away

There was no speed limit
On the Nevada state line
The air was red wine
On those top down nights
Just you and me
My old roller skate
And the common sense
To know our rights

Sweet old racin’ car of mine
Roarin’ down that broken line
I never been so much alive
Too fast for comfort
Too low to fly
Too young to die

David Crosby, Too Young To Die

She was already a decade past her debut and she was struggling to capture her audience’s imagination.  She was an aging actress – tempermental, unpredictable and the shakes in times of stress.  She was a true platinum blonde, a bantam weight whose critics maligned her for her Bavarian simplicity.  She traced her parentage back to a German industrialist who in concert with Adolph Hitler had conspired to create a legion of utilitarian vehicles known as “the people’s car”.  Her friends nicknamed her “Bug” presumably for her endearing hyperthyroid eyes, curved muscular frame and an evolutionary sense that she could somehow go on forever.  I adored her the first time I set eyes on her.

Her gas gauge would stick and often needed to be gently tapped to avoid a humiliating walk down a lonely road with a gas can.   Despite her pecadilloes, she was intelligent and resourceful, a marvel of engineering genius, deploying a clutchless manual transmission that offered all the joy of a stick shift without the hassle and wear of a manual clutch.  She could go forever on a gallon of gas and would fearlessly transport me on inexpensive road trips without so much as a whimper.  She was cautious on corners having been born just before her siblings were fitted with strut front suspension.  She punched her weight using her tiny base and light weight to maximize a 1.6-liter, 60 horse engine. And, she was all mine.  It did not matter that she was a diva and that I was ingénue arm candy.  She would spend the next several years opening my eyes to a brave new world.

Her death was a sudden, surreal crash of twisted metal and burning rubber. As we left a summer tennis match with friends, we were broadsided by a Nissan that was unable to navigate a hairpin turn, crossing the yellow lines to broadside her.  As I staggered from the wreck, I saw that she had yielded as much of her door as she could in an effort to save me.  Her side had accordioned under the pressure of the collision and the chassis was a hopeless pretzel of scrap metal.  I somehow understood that we were never going to see one another again.  Her job was done. As she lay dying, it was clear she wanted me to find a younger, more contemporary companion.

The insurance adjuster wrote me a check for $ 5,800.  She was callously referred to as a“total loss”.  It was a profane transaction.  In my mind, she could never be replaced.  I was in mourning but life in the land of freeways went on. I needed a new partner.

I moved on to a copper-toned beauty from the far east– a Datsun 280Z 2+2, I found her at a used car lot which is the equivalent of saying you met your spouse at an airport cocktail lounge.  I could tell she had been around the track but it was hard to gauge her true age.  She seduced me with promises of high speeds and a front seat that would never be without a blonde or brunette. It was a stormy romance riddled with public outbursts that left me stranded at parties and broken down along desolate stretches of interstate.  Her ancient fuel injection and manual transmission left her wild and unpredictable.  She required constant maintenance and even with bills mounting, I remained with her out of a misguided loyalty.  A phone call changed everything.

My father had received a Renault Alliance as part of a special promotion from one of his advertising clients.  This 1986 Motor Trend Car of the Year could be mine for cost.  She was French and given the French’s penchant for elegance and passion, I divined this would be the sartorial equivalent of driving a Hermes tie.  Our first date was disappointing.  She was seasick green with a thick ankle, square chassis. She had an unimpressive interior and instrumentation that resembled an arcade video game. As with all French, she was whimsical and preferred short work weeks.  She was incontinent and often left embarrassing oil and fuel stains in the garage. California traffic overheated her delicate disposition and in the end, she just sat down and went on strike.  She was the Maginot Line of automobiles. Yet, c’est la vie, we were together less tan a year and she was a cheap date.

I graduated to a rugged, patriotic stage and decided to buy an American truck. We had liberated Kuwait and oil was once again out of harm’s way.  The Chevy 4X4 was the Clydesdale of sports utility vehicles.  She would croon country and western ballads as we knifed deep into the mountains on ski, fishing and backpacking trips. It was constantly dirty from the mud and chaos of weekends away.  Yet, as I rose in business, I felt the need to find a more dignified vehicle that would come to symbolize my success. A truck simply did not convey the image that I wanted to project to the world..

My need to reinforce the perception of my progress in life began to spiral out of control. Through a series of what seemed fortuitous events, I purchased a Jaguar XJ6.  It was a car not really suited for a 30 year old American but for people who wore Burberry, spoke with a feigned Eton accent and were never seen needing to use the toilet.  They were the elite of society and I wanted in the club.  My veneer was shattered one day as I drove my wife and in-laws into San Francisco.  A VW bus filled with long haired Dead Heads pulled up alongside the Jaguar as we waited politely at a stop light.  They motioned me to roll down my window.  I lowered the tinted glass expecting a request for directions or perhaps even a compliment on the car’s incredible lines and form.  The red eyed, bandannaed twenty year old jutted his lower jaw and with his best country club lockjaw asked me, “pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”  There was an explosion of laughter and exhaust as the VW drove off.  I suddenly felt like I was driving me father’s car.   I resigned myself to return to my humbler German roots and find a partner appropriate for my standing.

I am now back in the bosom of Audi and am content.  I get restless at times and when I occasionally see a sleek Italian model, I feel like she is mocking me for even coveting her.  She seems to be suggesting that I could never handle her power or price.  When these green shadows of envy creep in, I remind myself of how happy I was in a simple yellow VW bug with a broken gas gauge, a microscopic engine and a tortoise like sense of invincibility.  I knew that when the traffic died, the bling dissolved, the advertising ended, the rain stopped and the dust and gravel setlled, she’d still be there – – two of us alone on some ancient stretch of desert road.

“Too fast for comfort, too low to fly. Too young too die. “